Writer’s block is hell.
You sit, every member of your body frozen, your neurons refusing to fire, your fingers refusing to type — and all the while, the awful blankness of the empty page declines to cease its sneering taunt. You lose sleep, lose sanity; your mind becomes a barren desert, a dry and weary land where there is no water, and the sky remains an ironically cheery blue, for the only clouds to be found are the ones shrouding your shriveled thoughts.
You know it, I know it; anyone who has ever attempted to put pen to page knows this inescapable affliction all too well. Joel and Ethan Coen know it too, and given their penchant for placing characters into endlessly merciless cosmos, it’s no surprise this parasitic congestive of creativity has wormed its way into their filmography. This regrettably relatable statement, “Writer’s block is hell”, acts as the thesis for the feverishly diabolical Barton Fink: the first two words act as a minimalist plot description, and the last references the deep thematic content interwoven throughout the film. Together, the pair coalesce to form a magnificently coherent whole, one that is eloquently fluent in its command of cinematic linguistics and darkly frightening in its nightmarish portrayal of corporate gluttony.
Barton Fink (Jon Turturro) is a New York playwright high off the critical acclaim of his latest work. When his success catches the eyes of industry bigwigs in Los Angeles, Fink accepts the invitation of Capitol Pictures to come under their employment. The job starts off well enough. There are a few bugs, to be sure — his primary residence (the Hotel Earle) is pretty sweltering, for one, and his next-door neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman), is friendly enough, but compensates this potential positive by having a major lack of respect for personal space. And then there are the actual bugs — mosquitoes, in fact — that just can’t seem to leave him alone. To top it all off, Barton just can’t seem to draw inspiration for the wrestling picture he’s been commissioned to write, even with the strangely potent draw of the beautiful painting that hangs above his desk: a woman looking out over the sea. The mounting pressure slowly accumulates, and it soon becomes difficult for Barton to reconcile his rapidly diminishing expectations and the bizarrely macabre events unfolding before his weary eyes.
The film is at least partially intended as a lampoon of Hollywood and the film industry, and it’s one that remains lamentably relevant even today. The tension on the line between artist and executive is interminable; the Barton Finks of the world, creators charged with glorious stories to tell, are held mercilessly under the oppressive thumbs of men likened to bloodthirsty mosquitoes — money mongers motivated by cash and bloated by excess. “The contents of your head are now the property of Capitol Pictures,” Barton is told at one point; his creativity, in short, is being sucked out and administered to assembly-line pictures in minuscule dosages. The most striking thematic imagery in the film concerns its primary setting: the Hotel Earle, Barton’s residence while under contract in Hollywood. Our first introduction to the hotel contains numerous allusions to what exactly the place represents: numerous fans stationed throughout the lobby attempting to combat the relentless heat; an impish fellow arising from a trapdoor behind the front desk when summoned by a bell; a glimpse of the Earle’s tagline (Hotel Earle: A Day or a Lifetime); the number 6 being referenced three times whilst Barton informs the inattentive elevator operator of his floor. Unfortunately for Barton Fink, the place already feels very much like hell. And he hasn’t even begun writing yet.
The comparison to a certain fiery underworld doesn’t end in the lobby; indeed, it’s barely the beginning. Although the brothers’ later films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis would be adapted from and inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, Barton Fink was the Coens’ first foray into drawing influence from classical poetry. Dante’s Inferno follows a poet and his guide on a grim tour through the nine circles of hell, and Barton Fink’s structural and thematic outline is constructed in a similar way, carefully and deliberately calling to mind each of these nightmarish layers. Both narratives boast an artistic protagonist — Dante is a poet, Barton a writer for the stage — who loses their way and strays from the path into a dark wood (Inferno’s is literal; Fink’s is delightfully allegorical). The First Circle, Limbo, is represented by the lobby of the Hotel Earle: a sort of in-between state, a gateway from the outside world; and the Second Circle of Lust by the clandestine but audible activities of the couple next door. The Third Circle of Hell is the dungeon of the gluttonous; it’s illustrated by Barton’s hero, the great American writer and raging alcoholic W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) – and it’s interesting to note that although Mayhew’s character acts as a pseudo-standin for the character of Virgil, he will, unlike his model, ultimately leave Barton stranded both physically and emotionally.
The Fourth and Fifth Circles contain the avaricious and the wrathful, the greedy and parasitic studio executives who fatten their purses and squabble pettily amongst themselves. Their worldview and approach to films and art are seen as nothing short of Heresy (the Sixth Circle) to Barton, whose noble dreams of using his talent to vindicate the struggles of the Common Man are grossly askew with Hollywood’s profit-motivated goal. Violence is inflicted upon Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), the secretary and lover of Barton’s failed Virgil, and the Seventh Circle is crossed. Up to this point she has appeared to fill the role of Dante’s Beatrice, but now she has led him astray: his muse has become an agent of his own destruction. At last, the ultimate Circles of Fraud and Treachery are reached. Charlie, it seems, is not only Barton’s friend and next-door neighbor. He’s also a serial killer, traveling the country under the guise of an insurance salesman. Barton’s world unravels around him: he’s been framed for murder, left with incriminating evidence, had his writing disparaged and his dreams crushed. In short, he’s been through the hell that is Hollywood… but he’s come out the other side.
Dante’s physical travels through Inferno also reflect an inner journey; the horror of what he witnesses in hell leads him to the true nature of his own soul. So it is, in a way, with Barton Fink. His obsession with providing artistic insight into the life and struggle of his oft-praised “common man” is undercut by subtle hypocrisy; when first introduced to Charlie, for instance — an actual working-classman (or so it seems) — Barton is far more comfortable spouting his worldview and desire for equal representation than actually listening to Charlie’s experiences themselves. “I could tell you some stories…” Charlie proffers no less than three times, only to have his new friend launch into a tirade against the evil habits of your typical writer. “Sure you could,” Barton interrupts excitedly; “and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and…” The irony of his own ignorance is lost on Barton; the fact that his beloved “common man” stands right before him, and all he thinks to do is spew his personal agenda.
This insincerity, be it intentional or otherwise, reveals a potential lack of honorable motivation within our “tourist with a typewriter”. Is he truly a social justice warrior driven by selfless desires? Or is the perceived neglect experienced by an overlooked class merely a foothold, a soapbox Barton stands upon in hopes of earning critical attention? Through Barton’s hypocrisy, the Coen brothers expose the disillusionment and fraudulent nature of 1940’s Hollywood that, regrettably, prospers alive and well to this day. The last we see of Hotel Earle and the studio executives is a fiery whirlwind of destruction that holds no hope of redemption. But this is not the case for Barton, who, like Dante, emerges from the Inferno a changed and wiser man. The vile wickedness Dante beholds opens a window into his own soul that previously went overlooked; for Barton, the rampant hypocrisy permeating Capitol Pictures allows him to uncover that same hypocrisy within himself. Unlike the gluttonous men behind the desks, however, Barton’s self-discovery of his secret vice prompts self-change. In the case of the Coens’ construction of hell, it appears the prisoners themselves hold the key to escape. All they have to do is realize it.
The sun shines, the waves crash, and Barton’s true Beatrice, the woman from the painting, sits on the sand before him. There’s not a mosquito in sight. “Are you in pictures?” Barton asks his mysteriously real muse.
She looks at him in amusement. “Don’t be silly,” she says.